All Quiet on the Prairie

All Quiet on the Prairie

Things have been quiet on the blog for a while because life has been just the opposite. Between working, traveling, trying to finish a book and various other fun problems (such as a botched basement floor installation and an email gremlin that tells me that emails I’ve written have been sent but then somehow don’t arrive), my life has been pretty crazy. In fact, it’s been to so crazy that as I read other bloggers posts about the one little word they wanted to hold on to for this (relatively still) new year, I decided that my word this year should be breathe. Just breathe. Then breathe again, in the hopes that by breathing I might get closer to some of those other words I considered—like balance, perspective and simplicity—that simply seem out of my reach right now. And maybe, just maybe, that breathing is working because I’ve found a bit of time and space to share here some of what I’ve been up to.

Complexity-elegance-visualFirst, the book: It’s working title (which is subject to change) is Embracing Complexity, which would be followed by a colon and a still-to-be-determined phrase that has something to do with a problem-based approach to the teaching of reading. It will build on the vision of reading for meaning that Dorothy Barnhouse and I explored in What Readers Really Doas well as the thinking I’ve shared here on the blog and at NCTE in November—in particular how to set students up to do more of the deep thinking work of reading with less teacher scaffolding. And it kicks off with a wonderful quote from M. Scott Peck, the author of The Road Less Traveled, who urged his readers to do exactly what I’ll be asking you to do:

“Abandon the urge to simplify everything, to look for formulas and easy answers, and to begin to think multi-dimensionally, to glory in the mystery and paradoxes of life, not to be dismayed by the multitude of causes and consequences that are inherent in each experience—to appreciated the fact that life is complex.

With any bit of luck and a fair amount of work, the book will be out sometime in the fall—though that means that things will be quiet on the blog front for the next two months. But I will be sharing ideas and work from the new book at two upcoming events.

Reading for the Love of ItThe first is the Reading for the Love of It Conference, which takes place in Toronto on February 9 and 10. I’ll be presenting two sessions—”Helping Students (and Ourselves) Become Critical Thinkers and Insightful Readers” and “What’s the Main Idea of the Main Idea: From Scavenger Hunting to Synthesizing in Increasingly Complex Nonfiction Texts.” I’ll be doing both sessions on the 9th and then again on the 10th, which means that there will be lots of time to catch some of the other fabulous speakers from the Conference’s stellar line-up, including Ruth Culham, Pat Johnson, Tanny McGregor, Linda Rief and Jeff Wilhelm.

Then the following month, I’ll be at The Teaching Studio’s Educators’ Institute, which will be held on March 14 at the Rhode Island Convention Center. Along with Sharon Taberski and Cornelius Minor, I’ll be presenting a keynote as well as one of the more than twenty other interactive workshops facilitated by teachers associated with The Learning Community, a Rhode Island charter school that’s been doing ground-breaking work on reading in collaboration with the Central Falls public school district. (And, yes, you read that right: three keynotes and a choice of over twenty workshops in one day!)

Educator's Institute Line-Up

And all that needs to be worked on, too, which is making me feeling the need to breathe again! So I’ll leave you with this old Swedish proverb, which I’m also trying to hold on to in these crazy times:

“Fear less, hope more; eat less, chew more; whine less, breathe more; talk less, say more; love more, and all good things will be yours.


Making Room for Thinking in the New Reading Wars


Watching the news these days is depressing as, whether it’s Syria, Iraq, Ukraine, Gaza, Ferguson or our dysfunctional Congress, the whole world seems enmeshed with conflicts. And here, on the literacy home front, we seem to be in the midst of a new round of reading wars, with Balanced Literacy and ‘just right’ books being pitted again Achieve-the-Core-style close reading methods and complex texts the same way that phonics was set in opposition to Whole Language way back in the 1970’s.


© 2013 Alejandro Giraldo, illustrator of The Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments (New York: Jasper Collins Publishers). Reprinted with the illustrator’s permission.

Just as then, this either-or mentality isn’t terribly helpful, nor is it always accurate. In fact, all of these this-versus-that positions seem like examples of a particular kind a reasoning flaw called the false dichotomy or dilemma or the black-and-white fallacy. This flaw in logic appears in arguments when an author presents a reader with only two opposing alternatives without any acknowledgement, let alone consideration, of other options or shades of gray. And, in fact, there are all sorts of other options. In many a classroom, for instance, phonics instruction co-exists with various whole language approaches—and no teacher or child has yet died. Balanced Literacy can meet the objectives of the both the Common Core Standards and close reading as the two lessons I compared in “Weighing in on Balanced Literacy” demonstrated. And in both their recent blog post and their fabulous article in this month’s Reading Today, “Break Through the Frustration: Balance vs. All-or-Nothing Thinking,” Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris push back on what many have framed as a choice between complex texts and ‘just right’ level books with this sound advice:

“To avoid the educational equivalent of scurvy and the whiplash that comes from the constant pendulum shift, we suggest moving from ‘either/or’ conversations about instructional- and frustration level reading to ‘both’ conversations.'”

There’s also something key that’s left out of all these this-text-or-this-approach-versus-that talk: Thinking. What kind of thinking are we asking or setting up students to do regardless of the texts or approach? Is it identifying text structures or using more clues to figure out unknown vocabulary as the two lessons I shared in that earlier post did? Or are we Main Idea Google Searchreally asking students to consider a text’s meaning at both the literal and thematic level, whether it’s a quantitatively measured complex text or a ‘just right’ book? And what kind of thinking are we engaged in ourselves when we create those lessons? Are we filling in the boxes of lesson planning templates with Standard numbers and objectives or searching google for a lesson on, say, the main idea (which yielded 1,770,000 results in .53 seconds)? Or are we thinking deeply about the texts we’re putting in front of our students to better understand how a reader actually determines the themes of that text through its specific details?

Personally, I can’t help but wonder whether we’d be in this whole Common Core/complex text pickle if we always set students up for deeper thinking instead of practicing skills or strategies that don’t necessarily lead to closer reading and more insightful meaning making. But that means that rather than investing in supposedly Common Core-aligned curriculum and training sessions on creating text-dependent questions, we would have needed to give teachers more time and space to be readers—deep, close and thoughtful readers who authentically think about how specific texts are put together and the kind of demands they place on a reader. And of course, we didn’t.

For a long time now I’ve believed that building our own capacity as readers is the key to helping our students become deeper thinking readers, too. And that belief informs much that I do, from offering occasional read alongs on the blog to starting workshops by asking teachers to read a text not as teachers, but as readers, as I did last week when I had the great privilege of working with coaches and teachers from the Los Angeles Unified School District’s South schools. And so I was utterly thrilled to learn about a keynote speech Lucy Calkins gave at the opening of one of this summer’s Teachers College Reading and Writing Project Institutes, where in her inimitable stirring and raise-the-bar way she said this: “To lift the level of your teaching, you must work on your own reading . . . [you must] try to outgrow yourself as a reader.”

Reading Today CoverWhat’s fascinating, though, is that Timothy Shanahan, one of the key proponents of the Standards and the author of another ‘just right’ book bashing article that also can be found in this month’s Reading Today, says more or less the same thing. In his clearly frustrated post, “Why Discussions of Close Reading Sound Like Nails Scratching on a Chalkboard,” he suggests that rather than “signing up for a workshop in ‘How to Teach the Close Reading Lesson,'” teachers would “be better off signing up for a Great Books discussion group,” which he likens to the a “reading version of the Writer’s Workshop approach to professional development” where teachers write to become better teachers of writing.

And that makes me wonder about what could happen if we focused on what we have in common rather than on how we differ: the need to carve out time and space for teachers to deeply read together and then apply what they learned from those experiences to design instruction that helps students grow into close and thoughtful readers. Perhaps then we wouldn’t need to create these false choices between this or that text or approach because we’d all share a more developed vision of what deep reading really looks and feels like. And who knows, perhaps that would even help us solve some of those other conflicts.

P.S. If you’re looking for more food for thought, here’s three links worth checking out that  are related to this week’s post:

1. To hear more incredibly sane and wise thoughts from Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris, check out their new book Reading Wellness.

2. To see more fun illustrations and explanations of other logical fallacies, check out The Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments by Ali Almossawi and Alejandro Giraldo.

3. And to get a taste for some of the work I did last week in Los Angeles, check out this podcast interview I gave with the Instructional Superintendent of LAUSD South schools, Robert Bravo.

When Is a Scaffold Not a Scaffold?

Bernini's fountain of the four rivers, Piazza Navona, Rome, Ital

© D. A. Wagner 2012,

Over the last few weeks I’ve found myself reflecting a lot on how much has changed in the educational landscape and my own thinking since What Readers Really Do came out two and a half years ago. And having also spent some time last month working with Lucy West, Toni Cameron and the amazing team of math coaches that form the Metamorphosis Teaching Learning Communities, I want to share some new thoughts I’ve been having about the whole idea of scaffolding.

From what I could gather from a quick look at (yes, I admit it) Wikipedia, the idea of scaffolding goes back to the late 1950’s when the cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner used it to describe young children’s language acquisition. And by the 1970’s Bruner’s idea of scaffolding became connected with Vygotsky’s concept of a child’s zone of proximal development and the idea that “what the child is able to do in collaboration today he will be able to do independently tomorrow.”

Even before the Common Core Standards, teachers have been encouraged to scaffold by using scaffolding moves like those listed below (which were culled from several websites):

  • Activating students’ prior knowledge
  • Introducing a text through a short summary or synopsis
  • Previewing a text through a picture walk
  • Teaching key vocabulary terms before reading
  • Creating a context for a text by filling in the gaps in students’ background knowledge
  • Offering a motivational context (such as visuals) to pique students interest or curiosity in the subject at hand
  • Breaking a complex task into easier, more “doable” steps to facilitate students achievement
  • Modeling the thought process of students through a think aloud
  • Offering hints or partial solutions to problems
  • Asking questions while reading to encourage deeper investigation of concepts
  • Modeling an activity for the students before they’re asked to complete the same or similar one
Bernini's fountain of the four rivers, Piazza Navona, Rome, Ital

© D. A. Wagner 2012,

As I looked at in last year’s post on Common Core-aligned packaged programs, scaffolding these days has been ratcheted up even more, with teachers more or less being asked to do almost anything (including doing a think-aloud that virtually hands over the desired answer) to, in the words of one program, “guide students to recognize” and “be sure students understand” something specific in the text. And, for me, that raises the question: What is all that scaffolding really helping to erect or construct? Is it a strong, flexible and confident reader who’s able to independently understand all sorts of texts? Or is it a particular understanding of a particular text as demonstrated by some kind of written performance-based task product?

If we think about what’s left standing when the scaffolding is removed, it seems like we’re erecting the latter, not the former—though in What Readers Really Do, Dorothy Barnhouse and I attempted to change that by making a distinction between what we saw as a prompt and a scaffold, which can be seen in this chart from the book:

Prompt vs. Scaffold 2

Most of the scaffolding moves listed above don’t, however, follow this distinction. Many solve the problems for the students and are also intended to lead students to the same conclusion—Sisyphusa.k.a. answer—as the teacher or the program has determined is right. I’m all for reclaiming or rehabilitating words, but given that the Common Core’s Six Shifts in Literacy clearly states that teachers should “provide appropriate and necessary scaffolding” (italics mine) so that students reading below grade level can close read complex texts, redefining the word scaffold may be a bit like Sisyphus trying to push that boulder uphill. So I’ve been thinking (and here’s where the math folks come in) about recasting the kinds of scaffolds Dorothy and I shared in our book as what my math colleagues call models.

Models in math are used not only as a way of solving a problem but of understanding the concepts beneath the math (which Grant Wiggins has just explored in a great “Granted, and. . . ” blog post). Here, for instance, are two models for multiplication: The first is a number line which shows how multiplication can be thought of as particular quantity of another quantity (in this case, three groups of five each), and the second the Box Method, or an open array,  shows how large numbers can broken down into more familiar and manageable components and their products then added up. Each model is being used here to solve a particular problem, but each can be immediately transferred and applied to similar problems:

Number Line Model

Open Array

And here’s a text-based Know/Wonder chart that records the thinking of a class of 5th graders as they read the first chapter of Kate DiCamillo’s wonderful The Tiger Rising (and—sneak peak—will be appearing in my next book):


© Vicki Vinton 2013, adapted from What Readers Really Do by Vicki Vinton and Dorothy Barnhouse (Heinemann, 2012)

Like the math models, it references the specifics of a particular text, but it’s also a model for solving certain kinds of problems—in this case, how readers figure out what’s going on at the beginning of a complex texts and develop questions they can use as lines of inquiry as they keep reading. In effect, the chart makes visible what those students were “able to do in collaboration” that day that they’ll “be able to do independently tomorrow,” because, whether we call it a scaffold or a model, it’s directly and immediately transferrable to other texts that pose the same problem.

In the end I don’t think it really matters what we call this kind of support, but I do think we have to ask ourselves what, exactly, we’re scaffolding or modeling. Are we helping students get a particular answer to a particular problem or text in order to produce a particular assignment? Or are we, instead, really offering a replicable process of thinking that’s tied to the concepts of a discipline, which can start being transferred tomorrow not an at indeterminate point in the future? Of course, that raises the question of what the underlying concepts in reading are, which we don’t talk about as much as my math colleagues do for math. But that I’ll need to save for another day . . . .

Rome Piazza Navona Fountain of the Four Rivers 2


Noticing What There Is to Be Noticed: A Tribute to Maxine Greene

Bike Sign Post

© 2014 D.A. Wagner,

In the flurry of getting ready to leave for Spain, the release from the grip of news cycles while away and the catch-up game of coming home to scores of voice messages and emails, I missed the fact that Maxine Greene, champion of the imagination and the arts in education, died last month at the age of 93. My dear friend Mary Ehrenworth introduced me to her when we were writing The Power of Grammar together, and strangely enough I found myself thinking of her while I was away. Knowing now that she’d died, it’s tempting to wonder if some energy was released by her parting that I felt a whole ocean away. But then I was only aware of my desire to follow her injunction to “notice what there is  to be noticed” and to live in a state of what she called “wide-awakeness,” being fully present, receptive and curious to everything around me.

Traveling, I think, invites wide-awakeness, especially if you give yourself permission to ignore the calls of the digital world, which I more or less managed to do. We also decided to forgo the guided or audio tours offered at sites and museums in order to, in Greene’s words, “notice what there is to be noticed without imposing alien readings or interpretations.” That allowed us to feel the thrill of discovering sites on our own, like the moment when I noticed that one of the columns in Gaudi’s fabulous viaduct in Barcelona’s Parc Guell had morphed into a stone woman before I read anything about it,

Gaudi Viaduct 2

From Vicki’s iPad in Parc Guell, Barcelona 2014

and when it dawned on me that we must be in Girona’s old medieval Jewish Quarter because I kept noticing menorahs.

Girona Menorah

Of course, relying on our eyes instead of a guidebook meant that we missed a thing or two, but it allowed us to attend to other things, like the shadow of a lantern cast on the floor of the Girona cathedral,

Girona Cathedral Shadow

© 2014 D.A. Wagner,

the origami butterflies we first spotted on the wall of the Archeological Museum and then started seeing everywhere,

Girona Butterflies

© 2014 D.A. Wagner,

and the delightful details we noticed on an 11th century tapestry, in which Adam and Eve stood alongside Apollo and turtles looked like cats.

Creation Tapestry detail

We stood in front of that tapestry, drinking it in for quite some time in what I think Maxine Greene would call an “aesthetic encounter.” According to Greene,

“Opening ourselves to encounters with the arts awakens us, prepares us for deeper living because our imagination is at work, and with imagination, a possibility of our transformation.”

In this case, we tried to imagine the lives and beliefs of the artists who created the tapestry as well as the world they inhabited and to also probe why and how the piece spoke to us so deeply across so many centuries. And as happened with everything we noticed, we had a lot of questions, which Greene says is a natural outcome of any aesthetic encounter.

European Appliance SymbolsTo answer some of those questions, we did sometimes turn to guidebooks or google (which helped us figure out what some of the mysterious symbols meant on the appliances in the apartment we rented). But many of our questions, like what the origami butterflies were for, remained a mystery. And while we did consult maps and bike route signs, it was often what we stumbled on when we were lost that was the most memorable, whether it was the tiled water foundation we noticed in an eerily empty Catalonia village right when we needed more water,

Girona Water Fountain

© 2014 D.A. Wagner,

the columns from an ancient Roman temple that were hidden in the courtyard of a medieval building in Barcelona’s old Gothic Quarter,

BCN Roman Columns

© 2014 D.A. Wagner,

or the factory where the Catalonian beer we thought was the perfect accompaniment to mid-afternoon tapas was made.

Damm Beer Factory, Barcelona

© 2014 D.A. Wagner,

Transitioning back now from vacation to work mode, it seems important to note that, as an educator, Greene envisioned having these aesthetic experiences not while traveling but in classrooms. And to provide those experiences to students, she believed that a teacher’s “educative task” was set students up to notice what there is to be noticed by creating opportunities that “nurture appreciative, reflective, cultural, participatory engagement with works of art,” along with “situations in which the young are moved to begin to ask, in all tones of voice there are, ‘Why?'”

Like the rich tasks I wrote about a few months ago, these situations and opportunities don’t have to involve extensive planning. They can be folded into practices and structures you already have in your room, such as reading conferences, simply by changing the questions we ask students. A 9th grade teacher I worked with, for instance, wanted to re-instate independent reading, which had been pushed aside in his classroom in favor of ‘complex’ whole class texts that many of his students couldn’t access. To keep his students accountable, he considered asking them to keep track of the literary elements in their books, and I asked if we could see what happened instead if we asked students what they noticed and what they made of that.

Game but skeptical, the teacher sat down next to me as I conferred with a student named Alex who was on the opening page of Gary Soto’s story “Broken Chain” from the collection Baseball in April—and in 9th grade, was only at a 5th grade reading level.


I began by asking Alex if anything had stood out for him on this page, and Alex responded by shrugging his shoulders. So I asked if he’d consider reading it again and see if he noticed anything that seemed interesting, confusing, cool, weird, or anything else to him. Baseball in AprilThis time Alex pointed to the line about Alfonso wanting to look like the Aztec warrior from the calendar, which he said was really weird.

I asked him then if he could say more about why he thought that was weird, and after pausing just long enough for me to worry that all I’d get was another shrug, he said this: “I think this guy cares too much about what other people think of him. And that picture’s probably not even real; I bet those cuts are air-brushed in. He should be okay with who he is.”

I believe that Gary Soto’s stories are works of art and that, when I gave Alex the opportunity, he started engaging with the story in the appreciative, reflective, and wide-awake way Maxine Greene says is needed if we, as teachers, are “concerned for teaching rather than training, for persons in their pluralities rather than potentional ‘job-holders and consumers’.” She also has these words to say to us, which seem important to keep in mind:

“To provoke students to break through the limits of the conventional and the taken for granted, we ourselves have to experience breaks with what has been established in our own lives; we have to keep arousing ourselves to begin again.”

Summer is a wonderful time to break with the conventional, whether you’re traveling or curling up with a great book. So with thanks to the wonderful Maxine Greene, here’s to noticing what there is to be noticed, staying wide-awake to all that’s around us, and opening ourselves up to new encounters.

Girona Greenway

© 2014 D.A. Wagner,




Some Thoughts on March Madness (and I Don’t Mean Basketball)

The New York State Common Core English Language Arts Assessments will be upon us in a few weeks, and this year they arrive against a backdrop of controversy over the use of standardized tests. More parents than ever have joined the opt-out movement, refusing to allow their children to submit to tests whose validity they question. Diane Ravitch has called for congressional hearings on the misuse and abuse of high-stakes standardized tests. And many states, including New York, have decided to slow down implementation of the Common Core and its tests, because as a Huffington Post education blog post states, “in far too many states, implementation has been completely botched.”

Whatever the ultimate fate of the Common Core assessments are, this year’s tests are going on as scheduled, and teachers are struggling over how to best prepare the students in their care, which has not been easy. Many schools around the country, for instance, adopted packaged reading programs that claimed to be aligned to the Standards and the tests as a way of hedging their bets, with New York City going so far as to commission a few key publishers to develop programs0 to the City’s specifications. Yet having now seen some practice tests, many teachers feel that these programs haven’t adequately prepared students for these tests. And they’re not alone in thinking this.

Sleuth CoverAccording to a recent Education Week blog post—whose title “Boasts about Textbooks Aligned to the Common Core a ‘Sham’ says it all—these programs should be viewed with caution as few, if any, live up to their claims. Many, as the blog post points out, have recycled material from older, non-Common-Core-aligned programs, such as Pearson’s ReadyGen, which uses the magazine Sleuth from its old Reading Street program for close reading practice on texts that don’t really seem close reading worthy. Others, such as Scholastic Codex, are so overly scaffolded—with teachers repeatedly directed to “assist students in understanding”—that it’s hard to see how students are being prepared for higher order independent thinking.

Meanwhile the practice tests provided by Curriculum Associates’s Ready test prep program, which most city schools are using, are insanely hard. Sixth graders, for example, most of whom have had no exposure to chemistry, must read a speech given by Madame Curie about the discovery of radium. The passage contains much content-specific science vocabulary, and while some of the words are defined for students as you’ll see below (underlining mine), the definitions seem as incomprehensible as the words in the passage themselves.

Madame Curie Speech

Meanwhile seventh graders are subjected to an excerpt from Charles Dicken’s Oliver Twist, poems by Keats and Yeats, and a speech by Ronald Reagan commemorating the 40th anniversary of D-Day, which seventh graders won’t learn about until eighth grade (provided, of course, that amid all this test prep, there’s still room for social studies).

With these texts, traditional test prep strategies don’t really seem to help. Process of elimination, for instance, will only take you so far on tests where more than one multiple choice answer seems completely plausible. And telling students to “make sure you understand the question before choosing an answer” seems almost laughable when the questions and answer choices are like the following:

Hybrid word question

But what’s really disturbing is that the Ready instructional test prep workbook doesn’t seem to help either. It’s organized in sections that correlate to individual Standards and skills—summarizing informational texts, analyzing text structure, determining point of view, etc.—but the workbook’s texts, questions and tips seem absurdly simplified when compared to the company’s practice tests. Here, for instance, is how the test prep workbook for seventh grade talks about point of view:

Analyzing Point of View

And here is a point of view question from a seventh grade practice test on a text called “Country Cousin/City Cousin” that consists of two sections with different narrators who, though dialogue, not only express their perspective but their cousin’s as well:

Narrator POV Question

The workbook suggests that a point of view is synonymous with a character’s perspective, which can be conveyed through dialogue, thoughts and actions; yet this test question requires students to think of point of view only as a narrative stance, which isn’t covered in the workbook. And even if they did get that, every answer except A seems plausible, since they more or less say the same thing. But only D is correct.

Maurice Sendak Cropped

From Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak

So, once again, what’s a teacher to do? Aware of the problems inherent in both the packaged programs and test prep materials, the teachers from a middle school I work with and I decided to take a different tack. At each grade level, we invited a small group of students who’d just finished a few passages from a practice test to talk with us about how it went. The point was not to discover who had the right answer or not, but to hear specifically what the students found challenging and how they, as readers and test takers, tried to deal with those challenges.

What the students said was enormously enlightening, as it gave us a window on how students were thinking, not just what they thought. (The confusion over what was meant by point of view, for instance, emerged during one of these talks.) And after listening carefully to what the students said and considering the instructional implications, we were able to come up with a few tips and strategies that specifically addressed what students found challenging and how some had overcome that.


We also noticed that the students were fascinated in how their classmates thought through their answers, so we also designed a new test prep practice. Rather than having the students practice simplified skills in the workbook or go over the answers to a practice test to find out which answer was right, we broke the students into groups, assigned each group a multiple-choice passage from a practice test they’d taken, and gave them a piece of chart paper. Their task was to first talk about the passage itself—what was easy, what was hard and why—then compare their answers, looking for questions for which they’d made different choices. Next each student explained to the group how and why they their answer they had—in effect, making a claim for an answer and supporting it with evidence from the text. And after listening to each other, they debated the answer and voted on one, recording their thinking on the chart paper. Then, and only then, did we consult the answer key.

Not only did the students find this more engaging than the worksheets and reviews, they also benefited from hearing how their classmates figured things out, which they could then try to do, too. Of course, it will be a while before we know how successful this approach was or not. But I have to believe that sharing the various ways different students solved the challenges these passages and questions posed was better than just reviewing the right answers. And in the meantime, I’ll keep my fingers crossed that the powers that be will listen to parents and teachers as attentively as we listened to these students and bring an end to all this testing madness.

Stop the Madness

Looking at Complex Texts More Complexly (or What’s Wrong with this Picture?)

Clifford Loves Me -SunAlsoRises

By now many of us have experienced or heard about the effects of using Lexile levels as the sole arbiter of text complexity. In her wonderful post “Guess My Lexile,” for instance, Donalyn Miller looks at the absurdity of putting book with widely different reader appeal and age appropriateness in the same book bin because they share a Lexile level (as my own favorite Lexile odd couple, Clifford and Hemingway, do, with both clocking in at 610L). And for those of us who strongly believe in the power of choice and interest-based reading, young adult writer Mike Mullin shares a chilling story in a blog post about a mother frantically searching for a book that her dystopian-loving 6th grade daughter, whose Lexile level was 1000, would be allowed to read for school. The Giver—out. Fahrenheit 451—out. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale—out, all because of Lexile levels which, in its arbitrariness and control, seems like something out of those dystopian books.

text complexity triangleWhile I can’t vouch for the intentions of the Common Core authors (as I can’t for any writer without direct communication), this is not what’s stated in the Standards themselves. In Appendix A’s “Approach to Text Complexity,” the Common Core authors offer a three-part model for measuring text complexity, which they capture with a now familiar graphic. This model, they clearly state, “consists of three equally important parts”—the qualitative dimensions, the quantitative dimensions, and the reader and the task—all of which must be considered when determining a text’s complexity in order to address “the intertwined issues of what and how students read.” Yet how often does that actually happen?

The Arrival coverThe sad fact is that too many schools, reading programs and test makers rely on quantitative measures such as Lexiles to make text selections for students because it’s simple and easy. Lexiles can be found with a click of a mouse, while assessing the qualitative measures is harder and much more time consuming, even when we use rubrics. That’s because the rubrics are often filled with abstract words that are open to interpretation, and they use what seems like circular logic—e.g., saying that “a text is complex if its structure is complex—which doesn’t seem terribly helpful. And how do you deal with a wordless book like Shaun Tan‘s The Arrivalwhich I recently explored with teachers from two schools that were looking at text complexity? Ban it from classrooms because, without words, there’s nothing to quantitatively measure?

Like other short cuts and quick fixes I’ve shared, dismissing a book like The Arrival, based on a non-existent Lexile level, risks short-changing students. The book requires an enormous amount of thinking, as the teachers I worked with discovered. And interestingly enough, their thinking mirrored that of the students of fourth grade teacher Steve Peterson, who wrote about his class’s journey through the book on his blog Inside the Dog. Both the fourth graders and the teachers had to make sense of what the author presented them by attending carefully to what they noticed and what they made of that. And while some of the initial ideas they came up with were different (the teachers thought the portraits on the page below were of immigrants, not terrorists, as some of Steve’s kids first did), the process was the same.


Both students and teachers had to constantly revise their understanding as they encountered new details and images that challenged or extended their thinking. And both debated the meaning of certain details in very similar ways. The teachers, for instance, argued whether the dragon-like shadow that first appeared in the picture below was real or a metaphor for something like oppression, while in a second post, Steve recounts how his kids debated whether the bird-like fish that appear later in the book were real or a metaphor for wishes.


The teachers only read the first part of the book, after which I passed out the rubric below, which many states seem to be using, and asked them how they’d qualitatively assess this text. Being wordless, the text couldn’t be scored for its Language Features, but for every other attribute on the rubric—Meaning, Text Structure and Knowledge Demands—the teachers all decided it was very complex, especially in terms of meaning.

Literary Text Complexity Rubric

If we give equal weight to both the qualitative and quantitative dimensions of this text, we have to say that even with a zero Lexile level, it’s at least moderately complex. And what happens when we add in the Reader and the Task, which sometimes feels like the forgotten step-child in text complexity discussions?

Steve and I used the text for different purposes—Steve to launch a unit on immigration, me for a workshop on text complexity. But we each set up our readersNCTE Logo to engage in critical thinking, which the National Council of Teachers of English defines as “a process which stresses an attitude of suspended judgment, incorporates logical inquiry and problem solving, and leads to an evaluative decision or action.” Both the teachers and students engaged in this process not because they’d had a lesson on suspending judgment or logical inquiry, but because they were curious about what the writer might be trying to show them. And to answer that question, both the students and the teachers automatically and authentically engaged in the work the Common Core’s Reading Standards 1-6.

Unfortunately many of the tasks we set for students aim much lower than that, including some of those found in the Common Core’s Appendix B, such as the following:

Students ask and answer questions regarding the plot of Patricia MacLachlan’s Sarah, Plain and Tall, explicitly referring to the book to form the basis for their answers. (RL.3.1)

Students provide an objective summary of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby wherein they analyze how over the course of the text different characters try to escape the worlds they come from, including whose help they get and whether anybody succeeds in escaping. (RL.11-12.2)

Each of these tasks are aimed at a particular standard, and frequently the instruction that supports them (plus the worksheets, graphic organizers and sentence starters) focuses the students’ attention on that single standard, rather than on a more holistic way of reading, which would naturally involve multiple standards. And while the Gatsby task is certainly harder than the third grade one, the prompt takes care of the hardest thinking by handing over a central idea instead of asking students to determine one.

But what if the reading task we set for students in every text they read is to think critically about what the writer is trying to explore or show them, through the details, story elements, word choice, structure—all those words that litter the Standards. Wouldn’t that, in addition to a complex qualitative measure, off-set a high Lexile level, if all three truly held equal weight?

I’ll share more thoughts on the reader and the task in an upcoming post. But for now I can’t stop thinking that if instead of ramping up the complexity of texts, we ramped up the complexity of thinking we aim for—trading in, say, some of the hardness of texts for deeper and more insightful thinking—we might, in fact, prepare students better for colleges, careers and life.

Preparation of Life Quote

Coming to a City Near You (or On the Road Again)

"To Them of the Last Wagon" by Lynn Fausett

“To Them of the Last Wagon” by Lynn Fausett

Just a quick post this week to let all my blog reading friends in the Rockies and points west know that I’ll be presenting next month at The Literacy Promise: Opening Doors for the Adolescent Learner conference in Salt Lake City. Sponsored by the Center for the Improvement of Teacher Education and Schooling at Brigham Young University, the biennial conference takes place at the Salt Lake City Convention Center March 12—14, 2014, and has a stellar line-up of speakers, including Ellin Keene, Carol Jago, Tanny McGregor and yours truly.

I’ll be giving two sessions on Thursday, March 13, one titled “Setting Students Up to Problem Solve (or How to Help Students Read Closely without Overly Prompting)” and “What’s the Main Idea of the Main Idea: From Scavenger Hunting to Synthesizing in Increasingly Complex Texts.” I’m sure I’ll be sharing some thoughts from these sessions on the blog before or after the conference, but just so you know, it always brings me great joy to meet blog readers in person.

For more on the conference, including how to register, click on the link above or on the image below. And if our paths don’t meet this time, I’m hoping they will in the future.

The Literacy Promise Banner